Ranking the first-round NCAA tournament games from best to worst

Jeff Eisenberg
·10 min read

After an interminable two-year wait, March Madness is back. Between Friday and Saturday, there will be 32 first-round men’s NCAA tournament games to watch.

Which games from that basketball smorgasbord look delectable and which should be left to wither on the buffet table? Below is an attempt to rank all 32 first-round games from most to least intriguing.

Tier 1: A strong-ass matchup

1. LSU (8) vs. St. Bonaventure (9)

On one side is a talent-laden, big-budget SEC program ensnared in a cheating scandal. On the other is a low-budget mid-major that already overcame long odds to win the Atlantic 10 and now is ready to punch up another weight class. At stake is a potential crack at wounded Michigan, maybe the most vulnerable of the No. 1 seeds.

LSU-St. Bonaventure has compelling storylines — and two really, really good teams that seem to be peaking in March.

Tier 2: Two more intriguing 8-9 games

2. Loyola Chicago (8) vs. Georgia Tech (9)

Three years after its stunning Final Four run, Loyola Chicago returns to the NCAA tournament with an even stronger team. The Ramblers, fueled by the nation’s most smothering defense and a balanced offense, won 24 games, finished in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings and swept the Valley regular season and tournament titles.

What was Loyola’s reward for all that? Incredibly, a date with ACC tournament champs Georgia Tech, a team that closed the season on an eight-game win streak but may not be at full strength against the Ramblers. The Yellow Jackets reportedly will be without the ACC player of the year due to a positive COVID-19 test.

3. North Carolina (8) vs. Wisconsin (9)

The last time Wisconsin beat anyone remotely good was a January 27 win at Maryland. The Badgers went 4-8 since then with the victories each coming at the expense of Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern.

North Carolina is better than those teams — and better than it was earlier this year. The Tar Heels’ frontcourt comes at you in waves and their young guards made strides as the season went along. This is a dangerous second-round opponent for Baylor if both teams survive the Round of 64.

Tier 3: Trendy upset picks

4. Villanova (5) vs. Winthrop (12)

There’s a reason Villanova-Winthrop is among this year’s most popular upsets. The Wildcats have not looked good since Big East co-player of the year Collin Gillespie tore a ligament in his knee a couple weeks ago.

In their first game without Gillespie, Villanova managed just 52 points against providence. A few days later, Georgetown ousted the Wildcats in the Big East quarterfinals. Now here comes 23-1 Winthrop, champions of the Big South conference. The Eagles were a two-point loss against UNC Asheville away from an undefeated regular season, but they also haven’t seen anyone of Villanova’s caliber yet.

5. Virginia (4) vs. Ohio (13)

A single player testing positive for COVID-19 last week has thrown Virginia's NCAA tournament preparation into chaos. The Cavaliers are quarantining in Charlottesville, forcing Tony Bennett to disseminate the game plan via Zoom calls.

Virginia won’t arrive in Indianapolis until Friday and won’t be allowed to practice until Saturday morning. That’s less than ideal when that night’s opponent is an Ohio team with a future pro at point guard, a well-respected coach and reason to believe it can win this game.

6. Creighton (5) vs. UCSB (12)

7. Colorado (5) vs. Georgetown (12)

Of the games involving teams seeded 12th or lower, there is no more popular first-round upset pick than this one in Yahoo Tourney Pick’em. Nearly 47 percent of Yahoo users like Georgetown to topple Colorado.

Georgetown certainly looked formidable while reeling off four wins in four days at Madison Square Garden last week, but it’s worth remembering this was a 9-12 team entering the Big East tournament. Colorado has an elite point guard, plenty of size and a good coach. The Buffs will be ready.

Tier 4: Pure fun

8. Arkansas (3) vs. Colgate (14)

Two of the 25 fastest-paced teams in college basketball meet in a first-round game that should feature bushels of points. That’s not usually a recipe for an upset, so the question is whether Colgate can possibly keep pace with an Arkansas team that might be too long, too quick and too athletic for the Raiders to handle.

No one knows quite what to make of Colgate because it has only played Patriot League foes this season as a result of the league’s cautious approach to COVID-19. The Raiders are in the top 10 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, but even they admit that’s a statistical oddity.

Tier 5: Cade Cunningham alert!

9. Oklahoma State (4) vs. Liberty (13)

The future No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft makes his NCAA tournament debut against a dangerous Liberty team that defeated Mississippi State and South Carolina this season. Hyped as he was entering the season, Cade Cunningham has somehow exceeded expectations.

Tier 6: Dangerous dark horses

10. UConn (7) vs. Maryland (10)

11. Oregon (7) vs. VCU (10)

12. San Diego State (6) vs. Syracuse (11)

Better-seeded teams will want no part of UConn, Oregon or San Diego State in the upcoming rounds if they can each survive their first games.

Tier 7: First Four to ____?

13. BYU (6) vs. Michigan State/UCLA (11)

14. USC (6) vs. Wichita State/Drake (11)

Warning to BYU and USC: Teams that have won First Four play-in games have historically been dangerous. The at-large First Four winners are 8-10 in the round of 64, the exact same winning percentage as No. 9 seeds during that same timespan.

Of the First Four teams, Michigan State is the biggest threat to make a VCU-esque run. The Spartans didn’t look themselves for much of the season, but they surged to the finish line with victories over Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. UCLA, on the other hand, closed with four losses in a row, albeit all games the Bruins led into the second half and all against NCAA tournament teams.

Tier 8: The 8-9 dud

15. Oklahoma (8) vs. Missouri (9)

Once top 10 teams with a long list of marquee wins, both Missouri and Oklahoma sputtered late in the season. The Tigers dropped six of their final nine games while enduring too many lengthy scoring droughts. The Sooners lost five of their final six with the lone victory coming over hapless Iowa State.

As if that alone doesn’t dampen enthusiasm for this game, Oklahoma lost second-leading scorer De’Vion Harmon to COVID-19 issues. Whoever wins, it feels like they’re just a speed bump in Gonzaga’s path to the Sweet 16.

LUBBOCK, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 27: Guard Mac McClung #0 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders high fives Kyler Edwards #11 after making a three-pointer during the first half of the college basketball game against the Texas Longhorns at United Supermarkets Arena on February 27, 2021 in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
The no-conscience volumee shooting of Mac McClung adds intrigue to what will likely be a low-scoring game between Texas Tech and Utah State. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

Tier 9: Tune in only for the last five minutes

16. Texas Tech (6) vs. Utah State (11)

17. Florida (7) vs. Virginia Tech (10)

Virginia Tech has played three games in 45 days because of COVID-19 pauses. Florida is prone to stretches of poor shooting and poor decision making. Texas Tech-Utah State is guaranteed to be a defensive struggle, where the first team to 50 wins. These two games could be ugly for 35 minutes yet deliver tense, narrow finishes.

Tier 10: The 12-5 upset pick to avoid

18. Tennessee (5) vs. Oregon State (12)

In this battle of Orange, ride with Rocky Top. Oregon State ousting three NCAA tournament caliber teams in three days to claim the Pac-12 tournament was impressive, but this is a team that lost to Portland earlier this season, a team that is still only 85th in KenPom even after that run. With or without John Fulkerson, last seen sporting the mother of all black eyes in the SEC tournament, Tennessee has enough talent to survive and advance.

Tier 11: Beware of the giant slayers

19. Florida State (4) vs. UNC Greensboro (13)

20. Ohio State (2) vs. Oral Roberts (15)

The nation’s leading scorer Max Abmas and co-star Kevin Obanor give ORU a chance to pile up points against Kyle Young-less Ohio State. Can ORU get enough stops to put actual game pressure on the Buckeyes?

21. West Virginia (3) vs. Morehead State (14)

22. Purdue (4) vs. North Texas (13)

23. Texas (3) vs. Abilene Christian (14)

Could the best turnover-forcers in college hoops harass Texas into mistakes? Perhaps, but the Longhorns also might overwhelm Abilene Christian with their length and athleticism. What happens if Jericho Sims can contain all-Southland center Kolton Kohl without any help? Can Abilene Christrian free its shooters some other way?

Tier 12: Mismatches

24. Alabama (2) vs. Iona (15)

The Rick Pitino factor provides a bit of intrigue here, but even Pitino has his limits. Iona is 181st in KenPom, worst of all the No. 15 seeds. The Gaels haven’t beaten a team ranked higher than 186th all season. There’s no reason to believe they can stay competitive against the reigning SEC and SEC tournament champions.

25. Kansas (3) vs. Eastern Washington (14)

26 Iowa (2) vs. Grand Canyon (15)

27. Houston (2) vs. Cleveland State (15)

Houston is second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Horizon League foes killed Cleveland State on the glass. On the off chance the Cougars miss jump shots, they’ll get plenty of put-back opportunities.

Tier 13: Is there another UMBC?

28. Illinois (1) vs. Drexel (16)

29. Michigan (1) vs. Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern (16)

30. Gonzaga (1) vs. Norfolk State/Appalachian State (16)

31. Baylor (1) vs. Hartford (16)

UMBC’s claim on history is probably safe for another year. Not only have No. 16 seeds beaten No. 1 seeds just once in 140 matchups since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985, this year’s crop also lost all nine games against power-conference opponents.

Of the No. 16 seeds, the strongest is probably Drexel, which hung around at Pittsburgh early in the season and finished the season a respectable 146th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Michigan might be the most vulnerable No. 1 seed after losing key starter Isaiah Livers to a stress fracture in his right foot, but you have to squint awfully hard to see Texas Southern or Mount St. Mary’s as a threat.

Tier 14: Only friends and family will watch

32. Clemson (7) vs. Rutgers (10)

The blueprint for a classic NCAA tournament game might be a charming underdog challenging a big favorite, two name-brand programs going big shot for big shot or a heralded NBA prospect showcasing his talent on a big stage. This game, alas, has none of that. It instead pits two starless middle-tier power-conference programs best known for how slow they play and how well they defend.

Yes, Rutgers is making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 30 years, and yes Steve Pikiell and Brad Brownell have done a marvelous job rebuilding previously downtrodden programs, but this matchup is a tough watch. Were this a Big Ten-ACC Challenge game, it would air on ESPNU and you wouldn’t think twice about skipping it. Do yourself a favor and do the same on Friday night.